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UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology

UCLA

Peer Reviewed
Title:
Prehistoric Regional Cultures
Author:
Midant-Reynes, Beatrix, Institut Franais d'Archologie Orientale
Publication Date:
03-01-2014
Series:
UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology
Publication Info:
UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology
Permalink:
http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4zz9t461
Keywords:
prehistory, Maadi, Buto, Naqada
Local Identifier:
nelc_uee_8756
Abstract:
In Egypt at the beginning of the fourth millennium BCE two distinct cultural units developed. In the
south arose the Naqada culture, named after the great cemetery discovered by Petrie at the end
of the nineteenth century. In the north, spanning the Delta up to the Memphite region, arose the
Maadi-Buto, or Lower Egyptian culture, named after the two reference sites of Maadi and Buto.
The establishment of these two entities, whose material culture and funereal traditions differed,
was the result of the role played in the process of neolithization of the Nile Valley by two great
regions: the East on the one hand and the Sahara on the other. During the fourth millennium,
after a period of interactions between those two regions, a cultural uniformity was born comprising
elements of a mixed culture dominated by southern features.
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PREHISTORIC REGIONAL CULTURES


Batrix Midant-Reynes
EDITORS
WILLEKE WENDRICH

Editor-in-Chief
University of California, Los Angeles

JACCO DIELEMAN

Editor
University of California, Los Angeles

ELIZABETH FROOD
Editor
University of Oxford

WOLFRAM GRAJETZKI

Area Editor Time and History


University College London

JOHN BAINES

Senior Editorial Consultant


University of Oxford
Short Citation:
Midant-Reynes, 2014, Prehistoric Regional Cultures. UEE.
Full Citation:
Midant-Reynes, Batrix, Prehistoric Regional Cultures. In Wolfram Grajetzki and Willeke Wendrich
(eds.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles.
http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz002hkz51

8756 Version 1, March 2014


http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz002hkz51

PREHISTORIC REGIONAL CULTURES


Batrix Midant-Reynes
Regionale Kulturen im prhistorischen gypten
Les cultures rgionales de lgypte prhistorique
In Egypt at the beginning of the fourth millennium BCE two distinct cultural units developed. In
the south arose the Naqada culture, named after the great cemetery discovered by Petrie at the end
of the nineteenth century. In the north, spanning the Delta up to the Memphite region, arose the
Maadi-Buto, or Lower Egyptian culture, named after the two reference sites of Maadi and Buto.
The establishment of these two entities, whose material culture and funereal traditions differed, was
the result of the role played in the process of neolithization of the Nile Valley by two great regions:
the East on the one hand and the Sahara on the other. During the fourth millennium, after a period
of interactions between those two regions, a cultural uniformity was born comprising elements of a
mixed culture dominated by southern features.



- .
) (
.

: ) (
.

.

n 1892, when W. M. F. Petrie


uncovered the vast cemetery of
Naqada, in Upper Egypt, he
signed the virtual birth certificate of
Egyptian prehistory. Although Petries first
interpretation was that the material found at
Naqada dated to the end of the Old Kingdom,
he nevertheless inaugurated the systematic
study of Predynastic Egypt by the application

of his innovative sequence-dating system


(Petrie 1901; and see Hendrickx 1996). Some
archaeologists before him had drawn attention
to the stone artifacts present in many parts of
the Nile Valley and in the Egyptian deserts
(Tristant 2007), but the existence of a history
before history was not convincing and
remained to be proved. Since Petries time, the
evolution of the research has progressed more

Prehistoric Regional Cultures, Midant-Reynes, UEE 2014



or less steadily, benefiting in the second half of
the
twentieth century from the rise of cultural
anthropology, which sparked a renewed
interest in cultural origins. Concomitant
technological progress made possible not only
absolute datations (C14) and large surveys in
the deserts, but allowed the development of the
paleoenvironmental
sciences.
The
chronological framework is now solid,
although adjustments remain discussed
(Khler, ed. 2011), and numerous new data
particularly from the deserts and Deltaallow
us to construct a clearer image of the
previously dark millenniums.

The Process of Neolithization and the


Development of Regional Cultures
To understand the development of regional
cultures in the Nile Valley, we must take into
consideration the fact that Egypt is located at
the crossroads of two continents, Asia and
Africa, connected by the Sinai Peninsula.
Although Egypt is part of Africa, we cannot
ignore the role played by southwestern Asia,
and particularly the south Levantine area, in the
emergence of the Neolithic Period in Egypt
and in the development of different regional
entities.
The slow development of the Palaeolithic
was followedalmost everywhere in the world
although at different timesby new forms of
production characterized by the control of
livestock breeding and the beginnings of
agriculture. In the tenth millennium BCE, the
small communities of what is now the Middle
East built the first villages and began the
process of neolithization (for the terms
Neolithic and neolithization in North
Africa, see Smith 2013). The Nile Valley,
however, did not follow the same trajectory as
its neighbors. There the hunter-gatherer way of
lifethat is, the late Pleistocene (19,000
17,000 BCE) hunter-gatherer strategy of
exploitation elucidated by the work of
Wendorf and his team at Wadi Kubbaniya
(Wendorf and Schild 1980; Close et al. 1989)
lingered until the sixth millennium, when the
first domestic species (goats, sheep, pigs,

barley, wheat, and peas; flax for linen),


originating in Asia, appeared on the eastern
margins (i.e., in southern Sinai and along the
Red Sea coast) (Close 2002; Vermeersch et al.
1994; Vermeersch, ed. 2008) and eventually
spread, during the fifth millennium, not only
throughout the Valley but also along the desert
borders and southward to the area of what is
now Sudan. Sites such as el-Omari, in the
southern part of modern Cairo, Merimde BeniSalame, on the western margin of the Delta,
and the Fayum testify to the adoption of the
new strategy of controlling resources through
livestock domestication and agriculture. We
unfortunately have almost no information
about the local populations who occupied the
Delta at this turning point, because the alluvial
deposits have buried archaeological data under
thick layers of silt. We do know that at Helwan
at the end of the nineteenth century
arrowheads were noticed by travelers, who
collected them because of their aesthetic
appearance. At the beginning of the twentieth
century, archaeologists systematically surveyed
the area (Debono 1948) before a military base
and urban expansion closed it definitively.
Much later, Schmidt (1996), having studied
some 3000 pieces collected during the early
surveys, linked the industry at Helwan with the
Levant Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) from the
ninth millennium BCE. The most clearly
recognizable of these remains can be dated to
the beginning of the fourth millennium.

Climatic Shifts and Regional Groups


The large surveys conducted over the past
thirty years by American and German
expeditions in the eastern Sahara have
provided an overview of the environmental
and cultural changes that occurred during the
Holocene in Egypts Western Desert and have
revolutionized our knowledge of the
emergence of Predynastic cultures in Middle
and Upper Egypt. In the 1970s, Wendorf and
his team concentrated on the Bir Sahara-Bir
Tarfawi area (Wendorf et al. 2002). Over the
next two decades, the BOS and ACACIA
German expeditions surveyed more than 1500

Prehistoric Regional Cultures, Midant-Reynes, UEE 2014



kilometers between Siwa and the Gilf Kebir
(Kuper
2002; Kuper and Krpelin 2006),

revealing several new sites that exhibited
extended periods of occupation along with
short-lived climatic oscillations (Riemer,
Lange, and Kindermann 2013).
From 8500 to 1500 BCE the climatic
history of the Eastern Sahara was dominated
by a gradual aridization that had increased
dramatically by about 3500 BCE. The climatic
and ecological variations determined the
dynamics of the human population, who had
necessarily to adapt to the changing conditions.
Between 8500 and 5000 BCE monsoon rains
reached the northern Sahara, supporting the
growth of savanna. As a consequence of annual
precipitation of up to 100 mm, the area
supported hunter-gatherer groups capable of
covering vast distances. They brought with
them ceramic technology and possibly
domesticated cattle (for the question of the
domestication of the Bos in Africa, see Marshall
and Hildebrand 2002). Although we can only
speculate on the relationships between the
eastern Sahara and the Nile Valley during this
time due to the lack of data from the Valley
itself, it is clear that the region we currently
identify as desert was not the large area of
hyperaridity that exists today, nor was it a
barrier between the Saharan nomadic
populations and the inhabitants of the Valley.
On the contrary, the two groups shared the
hunter-gatherer way of life.
In the sixth millennium BCE the landscape
changed. The gradually increasing seasonality
of rains and the increasing rate of evaporation
during the hot seasons rendered pools and
lakes temporary, necessitating that people be
highly mobile on the one hand and
agglomerate in permanent water areas (e.g.,
oases and the Nile Valley) on the other (Riemer
2007): thus they adopted a radical new way of
life based on livestock breeding.

In the fifth millennium the drastic shift


toward aridity prompted far-reaching
migrations to areas with permanent water
sources and consequent restricted activity in
waterless areas. As shown by specific types of
vessel and by strong similarities in the lithic
equipment, an original culture, the Tasian,
which constitutes a branch of a Nubian
tradition, flourished from the Gilf Kebir to the
southern part of the Western and Eastern
deserts (Gatto 2002, 2011). Although
discovered by Brunton at Mostagedda in 1937,
the chronological classification of the Tasian
culture and its status as a cultural entity have
been long debated (Friedman and Hobbs 2002;
Gatto 2006; see also Kobusiewicz et al. 2010).
Nevertheless, the Tasian is believed to have
given birth to the Badarianthe first Egyptian
Predynastic culturein northern Upper
Egypt.
The development of Predynastic regional
cultures at the end of the fifth millennium was
thus determined largely by the regional
adaptation to new living strategies in the
unsteady context of climatic and ecological
changes. While the adoption of food
production was a response to the drastic
environmental deterioration of the eastern
Sahara, the choice of Asiatic species suggests a
connection with the northern regions, and the
marshy areas of the Delta, which first became
available to agricultural settlers around 6500
5500 BCE (Stanley and Warne 1993).

Lower Egyptian Culture


As we have seen, the Neolithic is represented
on the desert borders of Lower Egypt at the
sites of el-Omari, Merimde Beni-Saleme, and
the Fayum. In the Delta, the first witnesses of
a new Predynastic culture appeared in the first
part of the fourth millennium, synchronous
with the Naqadan culture in Upper Egypt

Prehistoric Regional Cultures, Midant-Reynes, UEE 2014

Figure 1. Pottery of the Lower Egyptian tradition, Kom el-Khilgan.

(Naqada I-IIC, 4000 3400 BCE) (Tristant


and Midant-Reynes 2011). It has been
identified as the Maadi/Buto culture,
according to the main sites where it was
represented, but here we will refer to it as
Lower Egyptian Culture because the
discovery of new sites, particularly in the
eastern Delta, has widened its extension. In the
Memphite region around the site of Maadi and
the necropolis of Wadi Digla (Rizkana and
Seeher 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990; Hartung 2003,
2004; Hartung et al. 2003) it includes the
cemeteries of Tura, Heliopolis, and the isolated
finds of Giza. It extends as far south as the site
of el-Saff, located 45 km south of Maadi. The
culture is much better represented in the Nile
Delta at the sites of Buto (Von der Way 1997;
Faltings 2002), Ezbet el-Qerdahi (Wunderlich
et al. 1989), and Konasiyet el-Sardushi
(Wunderlich 1989) in the northwest, as well as
at Tell el-Farkha (Chlodnicki et al. 2012), Kom
el-Khilgan (Buchez and Midant-Reynes 2007,
2011), and Tell el-Iswid (Van den Brink 1989;
Midant-Reynes and Buchez, eds., fc.).

The Lower Egyptian cultural complex is


characterized by light dwellings, a weak
investment in funerary assemblages, and a
strong connection with contemporary
Levantine cultures. The settlements comprise
small structures made of light, perishable
material, identified by trenches, postholes, and
remains of wooden posts, and by hearths,
buried jars, and storage pits. The pottery
corpus consists of globular shapes with a flat
base, narrow neck, and flared rims, and by
narrow tumblers, bottles, bowls, and cups (fig.
1). Maadi distinguishes itself by the exceptional
presence of subterranean structures (Rizkana
and Seeher 1989: fig. 15 and pl. 14.5; Hartung
2003) attested nowhere else in Egypt but for
which parallels are found in the Beersheva
region during the Late Chalcolithic and the
initial Early Bronze I periods; indeed Maadi
seems to have displayed the characteristics of a
south Levantine community from its inception.
In the lowest strata from Buto (Buto Ia) a
similar scenario is revealed by a specific group
of ceramics, the so-called V-shaped bowls
(Faltings 2002), which, although locally

Prehistoric Regional Cultures, Midant-Reynes, UEE 2014



produced, clearly derive from South Levantine
Chalcolithic
production in their morphology,

decoration, and exceptional use of a wheel in
their manufacture. The technique of wheel
manufacture ceased during the following phase
(Buto IIa), about the time the Maadi
occupation ended, but Levantine influence is
nevertheless evident in the ceramics made with
calcareous clay fabric bearing foot, neck,
mouth, and handle decoration. The local flint
industry is characterized by twisted blades and
bladelets (Schmidt 1993), clearly distinct from
Canaanean tools. Copper objects are
common in Maadi, including not only needles,
pins, and fishhooks, but also rods, spatulas, and
axes. Metal analysis revealed a probable
provenance of the eastern and southern Sinai
Peninsula (Abdel-Motelib et al. 2012).
The interregional contacts with the
Levantine area constitute one of the most
striking features of the Lower Egyptian
Culture. They took place in a complex dynamic
of exchanges and borrowings correlated with
the social organization of both regions and
with their fluctuating evolution during the first
part of the fourth millennium (Guyot 2008).
The Lower Egyptian culture was, above all,
pastoral-agricultural and sedentary. Domestic
animals built up an overwhelming majority of
the cultures faunal spectrum: goats, sheep,
oxen, pigs, and the donkey, which was
employed for the transport of the goods. Kilos
of grain, including wheat and barley, were
found in jars and storage pits, along with lentils
and peas.
In contrast to those of Upper Egypt, the
Lower Egyptian graves are characterized by
extreme
simplicity.
Two
cemeteries
corresponding to two distinct phases of
inhumation are associated with the site of
Maadi, at nearby Wadi Digla. Bodies were
placed in individual pits, on their side and in a
contracted position, either without any
offering, or accompanied by a few pots and,
from time to time, a bivalve shellfish (Unio). In
Kom el-Khilgan, in the eastern Delta, 226
tombs were excavated, revealing three phases
of occupation. The first two phases belong to

Figure 2. Burial of the Lower Egyptian funerary


tradition, Kom el-Khilgan (Grave 23).

Figure 3. Burial of the Naqadan funerary tradition,


Kom el-Khilgan (Grave 188).

the Lower Egyptian cultural complex (Buto III) (fig. 2) and the third is attributed to the
Naqadan tradition (Naqada IIIA-IIIC) (fig. 3).
The occurrence of two different funeral
traditions in the same cemetery is exceptional
and initiated for scholars a new way of thinking
about the cultural unification of Egypt (Buchez
and Midant-Reynes 2007, 2011).

Prehistoric Regional Cultures, Midant-Reynes, UEE 2014


Upper Egyptian Culture

In the area of the modern town of Assiut, in

approximately 4500 BCE, a cultural complex


arose of whom our knowledge is based
essentially on funerary remains, and to a lesser
extent on poorly documented settlements: the
Badarian culture, first identified in the Badari
region, near Sohag. In the light of new
discoveries in the Egyptian deserts, however,
and in the context of the paleoclimatic
reconstruction of the Holocene period, we can
now consider the existence of the still earlier
Tasian culture, for which the cultural marker is
a round-based caliciform beaker with incised
design filled with white pigment (fig. 4). New
data from the Eastern and Western deserts, the
area of modern Sudan (Friedman and Hobbs
2002; Kuper 2007), the exceptional cemeteries
of Gebel Ramlah, some 130 km west of Abu
Simbel (Kobusiewicz et al. 2010), and from a
well-dated settlement at Kharga Oasis (Briois
et al. 2012) allow us to sketch the cultural
identity of the Tasian and to locate it at the
roots of the Badarian. The Badarian now tends
to be considered as a regional development of
the Tasian nomadic culture, which occupied
the southern part of the Egyptian deserts and
the Sudan during the fifth millennium.
Research conducted over the past thirty
years has revealed the extent of the Badarian
area to be considerably larger than was
previously thought. Badarian items have been
found as far south as Maghar Dendera
(Hendrickx, Midant-Reynes, and Van Neer
2001) and Elkab (Vermeersch 1978: pl. VI),
and as far east as the Eastern Desert (Friedman
and Hobbs 2002). The Badarians were herders
and farmers. Their settlements are poorly
documented but suggest small structures made
of perishable materials, grouped in small
villages. Thus the Badarian way of life did not
differ fundamentally from that of the Lower
Egyptian.
The contrast between the Lower and Upper
Egyptian cultures is striking, however, in the
realm of funerary practices. Numerous
cemeteries located in the low desert (close to

Figure 4. Tasian beaker (UC 17869 or UC


17870).

the fertile land of the Nile Valley) comprised


hundred of graves that exhibited the onset of a
process of social stratification that became
increasingly pronounced in the following
(Naqada) period. Bodies were placed in a
simple pit, often on a mat, in a contracted
position, on the left side, head to the south,
looking west.
The main grave offering was pottery (figs. 5
and 6), simply shaped and made by hand,
including cups and bowls with straight rims
and a rounded base. The finest example is a
very thin-walled, black-topped ware, whose
surface was combed prior to being polished,
producing a ripple effect. The repertoire of
funerary goods also included personal items
such as ivory and bone hairpins, combs,
bracelets, spoons, and beads, and the
graywacke palette made its first appearance,
thus beginning its long development through
Predynastic times. The shapes were limited to
oval and rectangular forms, but would display
great variety during the following Naqadan

Prehistoric Regional Cultures, Midant-Reynes, UEE 2014



Period. The lithic industry, which we know
essentially
through settlements, was principally

a flake industry with a small component of
bifacial tools.

Figure 5. A stone vase, two black-topped jars, an


ivory comb, and bone bracelets were the offerings
in a child grave of Naqada I, Adaima.

the cultural complex that developed in Upper


Egypt during the first half of the fourth
millennium, represented by a consistency in
material culture and funerary practices, was
totally different from that of Lower Egypt and
the northern part of Middle Egypt. The
situation began to change in the Naqada II C
and D phases, when a period of interaction
between the northern and the southern
complexes took place, which would be
followed by cultural unification in Naqada IIIA
(Buchez and Midant-Reynes 2007, 2011).
Middle Egypt, due to its central position,
undoubtedly played an important role in the
process of cultural unification, but our data is
unfortunately limited, since no new excavation
has been conducted there since 1930. A recent
reappraisal of the Gerza cemetery by
Stevenson drew her to the conclusion that the
community at Gerza was a migrant one who
were embedded in Naqadan traditions
(Stevenson 2009: 207; cf. Buchez and MidantReynes 2007, 2011).

Cultural Unification: An Acculturation Process

Figure 6. Child grave of Naqada I, Adaima, in


which the objects in Figure 5 were found.

Identifying the precise connection between


the Badarian and Naqadan cultures is more
complex than previously believed. It has been
thought that the Naqadan culture developed
out of the Badarian and spread to the south,
covering an area between Matmar and
Hierakonpolis, but there is no clear break
between the two cultures. Conversely, it is now
believed that the Naqadan culture developed in
regions south of the Badarian core area. In
every case, and despite regional variations
identified through the ceramic and the lithic
assemblages (Friedman 1994; Holmes 1989),

The expansion of the Naqada culture has been


the object of much debate and controversy.
The dominant traits of the Naqada IIIA
assemblage were assimilated by the Lower
Egyptian complex, which as a consequence lost
its own cultural identity. This phenomenon
became the model for Kaisers Naqadan
expansion (1964, 1990, 1995), which implied
a conquest, at the end of which the entire
country was subjugated by the Naqadan elite.
This model, though largely accepted, has been
strongly criticised by Khler (2008), who draws
attention to the fact that notable regional
variability existed within what was thought to
be a single cultural entity. Based on the material
culture from settlements, rather than
cemeteries, she proposes that the local
differences were gradual simultaneous
developments in the different regions of the
Nile Valley. The connections between the
Naqadan and the Lower Egyptian contexts are
explained as inter-relationships between
permeable cultural entities. Instead of an

Prehistoric Regional Cultures, Midant-Reynes, UEE 2014



external stimulusthe Naqada expansiona
model
of internal development is suggested in

which the changes that occurred in Lower
Egypt from Naqada IIC-D are the result of the
general evolution of the entire Nile Valley.
New data recorded from the excavation of
Kom el-Khilgan, in the northeastern Delta,
lead us to somewhat different conclusions.
Before Naqada IIC, two main entities (i.e., the
Upper and Lower Egyptian cultures) took
shape, within which we can observe variability
in material culture and funerary practices. Yet
these entitiesthough stemming from
different traditionsexhibit the same socioeconomic level in regard to their settlements
and means of production. A change took place,
however, after Naqada IIC, in the form of a

process of interaction whose impetus was


provided by the fundamental social changes
that occurred in the Naqada sphere. The
following period100 to 150 yearssaw a
progressive transformation that led to the
appearance of a syncretic culture, which
finally culminated in the assimilation of
southern traditions by the north. In this way,
Naqada III is not a pure Naqadan culture but
a mixed one with Naqadan-dominant traits.
A similar pattern is found in southern Egypt,
which has dominant Naqadan traits intermixed
with traits of the Lower Nubian tradition
(Gatto 2006). The emergence of power in this
process requires the analysis of the economic
and political structures of the social groups
involved, how they interacted, and the role
played by war (Campagno 2004).

Bibliographic Notes
Periodization of the Predynastic Period, which concerns the Upper Egyptian (Naqadan) tradition,
was made by Petrie (1901), revisited and renewed by Kaiser (1957), and reviewed by Hendrickx
(1996). For a complete and recent review encompassing Lower Egypt and Nubia, see Khler, ed.
(2011). The American and German expeditions in the Western Desert (Wendorf et al. 2002; Kuper
2002; Kuper and Krplin 2006) shed new light on the process of Neolithization of the Nile Valley,
linked with climatic changes during the Holocene. Information on the introduction of domestic
species from the Levant via the Sinai can be found in Close (2002), Vermeersch et al. (1994), and
Vermeersch, ed. (1996). Concerning the controversy over the domestication of the African Bos,
see Marshall and Hildebrand (2002). About the emergence in the fifth millennium of a Nubian
cultural tradition (Tasian), which influenced the first Predynastic cultures of the Nile Valley, see
Gatto (2002, 2011) and Kobusiewicz et al. (2010). For a summary of the Lower Egyptian Culture,
see Tristant and Midant-Reynes (2011). The question of cultural relations with the Levant is
revisited by Guyot (2008), and that of the origins of copper ore by Abdel-Motelib et al. (2012).
The main features of the Naqadan tradition are described in a chapter of The Prehistory of Egypt
(Midant-Reynes 2000), and the debated questions about the cultural unification at the end of the
fourth millennium are found in Kaiser (1964, 1990, 1995) and Khler (2008). For the late fourth
millennium, see also Campagno (2013).

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Image Credits
Figure 1. Pottery of the Lower Egyptian tradition, Kom el-Khilgan. ( IFAO.)
Figure 2. Burial of the Lower Egyptian funerary tradition, Kom el-Khilgan (Grave 23). ( IFAO.)
Figure 3. Burial of the Naqadan funerary tradition, Kom el-Khilgan (Grave 188). ( IFAO.)

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Figure 4. Tasian beaker (UC 17869 or UC 17870). ( Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University

College London.)

Figure 5. A stone vase, two black-topped jars, an ivory comb, and bone bracelets were the offerings in a child
grave of Naqada I, Adaima. ( IFAO.)
Figure 6. Child grave of Naqada I, Adaima, in which the objects in Figure 5 were found. ( IFAO.)

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